This volume—a contemporary classic by "one of the most singular and compelling poets in English [of] the past half-century" (
Times Literary Supplement)—contains poems written in response to the AIDS crisis. Originally published in 1992, it was Thom Gunn''s first book of verse in ten years.
In the title poem of Thom Gunn''s
The Man with Night Sweats, the speaker wakes from a nightmare of "mind reduced to hurry" and "flesh reduced and wrecked." In this haunting prelude to his laments for friends lost to AIDS, he explores his own body for damage, and concludes,
Hugging my body to me
As if to shield it from
The pains that will go through me,
As if hands were enough
To hold an avalanche off.
As this avalanche of tragedy begins to slide down the hills of Gunn''s adopted San Francisco, the poems themselves change form. They cascade from the elegiac couplets of "The J Car," about the decline of a gym owner, into the harrowing free verse of "In Time of Plague," in which the speaker remembers being too "afraid of the strength / of my own health" to indulge with "Brad and John, these fiercely attractive men / who want me to stick their needle in my arm." Gunn''s understated emotional weariness is especially compelling when read alongside the book''s many songs of innocence. The simple "Seesaw," for example, provides an
that applies equally to life: "So it ends / as it begins. / Off we climb / And no one wins." Although the specter of plague stands behind much of the book, he maintains the tense prosodic trajectory he''s followed since 1954''s
. His long California residency aside, Gunn writes the best British poetry of his generation, and
The Man with Night Sweats
is his finest book to date.
"The tension of Gunn''s famous earlier poems, which adventurously drew on classical themes (Achilles and Patroclus), pop icons (Presley and Brando), and existential extremes, has, in his first new collection in ten years, become muted and commemorative . . . Gunn moves with a colloquial ease and a kind of epigrammatic grace through a variety of quatrains, coupleted monologues, Skeltonic variations, and occasional free verse."—John Updike,
The New Yorker
"The great and undeniable potency of The Man with Night Sweats comes from the poet''s huge restraint, as much as from his tragic subject matter . . . The Man with Night Sweats shows a poet at the top of his form, gathering his world into art without ever choking off passion. The formidable craft behind these poems—the metrical, syllabic, and rhyming intricacy--is translucent, but there to buoy the emotion like an invisible net."—Matthew Gilbert,
The Boston Globe
"Perhaps his most wary, moving, personal book to date. It is a forceful reminder that Gunn . . . is one of the most singular and compelling poets in English during the past half-century . . . He writes of and from the modern climate, as if wholly at home here; these new poems have a claim to be some of the most authentic occasional poems of our time."—Hugh Haughton,
The Times Literary Supplement
"What Gunn is continually attempting to grasp or understand in this book is the condition of those around him, strangers and lovers alike, and we treasure his tone of brotherly forbearance as he makes his way . . . Gunn is a definatly unsuitable poet—a formalist who often writes in free verse, an Englishman living in America, an autobiographical poet whose subjects elude the self . . . The book, divided into four sections, begins with poems boldly erotic and ends at ''death''s door'' . . . Yet amid all this astringent life experience, astonishingly, a profound hope emerges."—Henri Cole, The Nation
Thom Gunn, born in 1929, has received many awards, including a Lila Acheson Wallace/Reader''s Digest Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship.